MEDITATION ON KURT VONNEGUT: III…

January 3rd, 2013

I remember my freshman English teacher — Miss Mary (Granny) Baker — attempting to get a rise out my lethargic class by having us read the bedroom scene from Romeo and Juliet and beating us over the head with the revelatory information that first, the lovers were rousing from a night of sex and that second, Juliet was just shy of her 14th birthday and Romeo not much older. I still remember the frustration in her voice as we all sat there slack jawed and wondering what was for lunch. On the other hand, I remember reading Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy And His Dog” in Mr. Craig’s Algebra class (clearly not assigned reading) and being very interested in the process by which the girl puts on her bra.

I mention this juxtaposition of adolescent reading interest because of the decades-long battle against illiterate, knuckle dragging defenders of decency who protest the reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, editor Dan Wakefield writes:

As [Vonnegut] and his books became famous, there were more and more attempts to censor them, and he passionately defended the teachers and librarians who fought for their right to use them in schools and libraries. After the burning of copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in a furnace in Drake, North Dakota, on orders of its school board, and the banning of it by the school board in Levittown, New York, Vonnegut wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times on 24 March 1976 that

Whenever ideas are squashed in this country, literate lovers of the American experiment write careful and intricate explanations of why all ideas must be allowed to live. It is time for them to realize that they are attempting to explain America at its bravest and most optimistic to orangutans.

From now on, I intend to limit my discourse with dimwitted Savonarolas to this advice: Have somebody read the First Amendment to the United States Constitution out loud to you, you God damned fool! p. 154

At some point I think we all would like to be able to say that we have arrived at an impasse and that we have to agree to disagree. When, however, the disagreement involves the curtailment or outright removal of basic rights then that option leaves the table. Should parents be able to determine at what age their children are exposed to certain ideas? Of course; and yes, that cuts both ways. That parental decision, however, must not, cannot, be extended to deliberately dumbing down children not of their household for the sake of preserving the delusion that their child must be protected.

Perhaps one rule of thumb might be: if you’re reading only the good parts, then you’re probably not old enough to read the rest.

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